The poor little Wireless Application Protocol (Wap). Two or three years ago it was the talk of the town; now nobody seems to be interested.
Its parent body, the Wap Forum, has changed its name to the Open Mobile Alliance, and the items on its 'What's new in Wap!' web page are more than a year old.
The mobile phone companies and software giants that championed Wap have gone quiet, and all the interest seems to have switched to newer, shinier technologies such as third generation (3G) and multimedia messaging.
In many ways, Wap has only got itself to blame or, rather, the marketing types who over-promised then under-delivered. Their biggest mistake, according to industry executives, was to sell a technology as though it was a product.
"The hype surrounding Wap was just too much," explained Avi Azulai, managing director at wireless application service provider iTouch.
"The internet has produced a cultural revolution, but how many people actually know about HTML or packet switching? The fixed internet is all about content, and yet the wireless internet was supposed to be about a protocol: Wap."
It's a bit like plucking a stoker from the engine room of a steamship and making him captain; who could blame him if he misread the chart and sent the ship towards the rocks? Give him a shovel, however, and he is an excellent worker.
"The mobile internet is very good for certain things," said Damian Bown, chief executive of mobile software developer and Wap pioneer Kizoom.
"For example, it is appropriate for delivering public transport information, because you can use it while you are actually travelling on the transport, and you can get simple information without the irritating distractions of the PC web."
Paolo Pescatore, senior analyst at research firm IDC, said: "I still believe there is some life left in Wap, and that companies have been wrong to abandon it. Quarter-on-quarter, the number of page impressions is increasing, so people are taking to Wap a lot more."
The premise of Wap - simple data connections optimised for slow and often unreliable mobile links - remains sound, and the quality is improving, with fewer dropped connections and faster page-to-page navigation. Wap also has the widest global reach of any technology of its kind.
Almost every phone handset now on the market is Wap-enabled, although many are still based on the old Wap 1.2 standard rather than the more secure, multimedia-capable version 2.0. (Wap 2.0 may do better in the Christmas market, according to analysts.)
Larger screens, the advent of colour and better navigation devices on phones are all making Wap applications more attractive.
Browser software is becoming more attractive to match; Wap co-inventor Openwave claims to have shipped the 300 millionth copy of its Mobile Browser software in October, and expects to ship more than 100 million in 2002.
And well presented content is attracting significant hit rates. Railtrack's Wap site, designed by Kizoom, receives 600,000 travel enquiries each month.
"That means more than 10 per cent of Railtrack's online enquiries are now coming via Wap," said Bown.
Numbers might be even higher if the mobile operators pre-configured handsets to use Wap. "Most people I meet who have a Wap phone, I have to configure it for them," explained Bown. "Until phones are pre-configured, they won't get used."
The problem, according to Bown, is that the damp squib of Wap's early life means that people expect to be disappointed, and they don't bother trying it out.
Perhaps the best thing is not to mention the dreaded acronym at all, and rehabilitate Wap through the back door.
This is already happening, according to Anders Holst, corporate affairs director at mobile services provider Telecom One.
"Most users may not realise it, but we are now firmly in the second wave of Wap, with this much-maligned technology being used as a delivery mechanism for mobile content such as polyphonic ring tones, animated screensavers, picture downloads and mobile Java-based games," he said.
The basic applications of Wap have always included data services, such as weather forecasts, news and travel, stock prices and horoscopes, email and unified messaging, and personal information management.
Business-to-consumer applications have included parcel tracking, airline booking and check-in, on-the-spot exhibition information, price checking, personalised shopping, hotel booking, banking and share trading.
Businesses, too, have used Wap to integrate mobile workers with corporate systems. These can be inside buildings, such as warehouse supervisors, hospital doctors, factory managers and support technicians, and even managers who are always in meetings.
Or Wap may be used for peripatetic staff, including sales reps, district nurses, service engineers, couriers, police officers or truck drivers.
Early Wap applications were limited by the slow data speeds of Global System for Mobile communications networks, which made anything more than small amounts of data impracticable. But new, always-on General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) will significantly increase Wap's capabilities.
"It's only now, with the influx of new colour and GPRS handsets, that we are beginning to see what Wap is really capable of," says Nigel Oakley, vice president of marketing at Openwave.
Multimedia-capable Wap 2.0 over faster GPRS opens the door to more sophisticated applications, such as photo messaging, a potentially huge market likely to be worth $44bn worldwide by 2006, according to the Yankee Group.
Applications will appeal to professionals, such as estate agents and loss adjusters, as well as the emergency services (allowing rapid circulation of scene of crime pictures, for example) and consumers.
Wap Push enables rich content to be delivered straight to users' handsets. Oakley described a typical session: "A user is forwarded the final score of the big match, together with a photo of the man of the match leaving the field.
"The user can then view video clips of the goals, listen to a post-match interview with the managers, download a new game, register for a discount on the winning team's strip or submit a photo of himself celebrating the win via his camera-phone."
Location-based services have been rather over-hyped, but there is a bedrock of genuine interest and functionality.
Knowing which phone cell the user is using enables the system to direct him to the nearest Chinese restaurant, find friends currently in the same area or draw his attention to special offers in nearby shops.
Add Global Positioning System navigation for pinpoint accuracy, and the user can be given street-by-street directions, or a business can map the exact location of all its staff and vehicles.
Sweden has location-based game playing, and even a hit TV programme, Position X, which uses location-based services.
But nobody claims that Wap is a panacea any more. "Wap is just one of the technologies that will be used in the mobile and web services applications of the future," explained Andy Shepperd, general manager of the networking and storage divisions at distributor Computer 2000.
"Resellers need to know about its capabilities and limitations, and understand how it can fit into the overall infrastructure.
"The opportunity is not around just Wap; it is based around the whole set of mobility-enabling and wireless-enabling technologies, and resellers looking to maximise opportunities in these areas need to understand GPRS, 3G, Bluetooth and the 802.11 standard as well."
Resellers are unlikely to make a mint out of Wap by itself. But reports of its demise have definitely been exaggerated, and it will remain an essential, if increasingly invisible, piece of the mobile infrastructure jigsaw.
WML STARTS PULLING ITS WEIGHT
Although it is designed for wireless communications, the small footprint and low bandwidth requirements of Wap also make it ideal for simple wired communications.
In fact, 5.7 million of the UK's Wap users need never leave their armchairs, because Wireless Mark-up Language (WML) is used as the browser interface for BSkyB's set-top boxes, which communicate with BSkyB via dial-up telephone lines.
Originally installed for delivering programme information, simple interactive services and so on, WML is now being used to deliver statement information to pay-per-view subscribers.
Columbus software, from document management and delivery vendor Macro 4, takes the billing information from BSkyB's IBM mainframe and translates it into XML, then into WML.
It can be downloaded on request by any of BSkyB's 2.25 million pay-per-view subscribers if they want to check their bill. The WML translation is done when the customer actually requests the information.
The system has been running for a year, and BSkyB wants to stop sending pay-per-view bills and statements on paper by the end of this year, which would make huge savings in printing and postage costs.
It is a good example of Wap-based 'pull' technology (people only retrieve the information if they want it) replacing a paper-based 'push' model where everyone gets the information, whether they want it or not, although WML could also be used for push applications.
Further WML-enabled applications could include interactive advertisements and online facilities for checking bank statements and investment portfolios.
Businesses could use billing information as a way of drawing customers to their sites and offering them other products.
"We are working in partnership with BSkyB and its provider companies to find innovative ways to deliver documents to its subscribers," said Peter Turnbull, UK solutions marketing manager at Macro 4. "Wap is becoming an integral part of a multi-channel strategy for organisations."
The BSkyB system was sold direct, but Macro 4 is now looking for reseller partners. Turnbull added that WML conversion implementations are pretty straightforward, and do not require detailed Wap expertise from the reseller.
TECHNOLOGIES TO WATCH
Wap The technology was devised by mobile phone vendors Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia and software vendor Openwave (then Unwired Planet) to overcome some of the problems of using conventional IP over mobile links.
It copes with the choppy signals and dropped connections often experienced by mobile phones, and uses tight data compression to cope with low bandwidths. The development process is co-ordinated by the Open Mobile Alliance, formerly called the Wap Forum.
WML Wap uses Wireless Mark-up Language for writing content in a more compact form than HTML. Although related to HTML, the original version of WML was sufficiently different that pages had to be custom written for it.
Wap 2.0 Wap 1.1, the first widely used version, was ratified in June 1999. Wap 2.0, which was released in August 2001, makes several significant improvements, promising a much richer user experience.
It includes WML 2.0 - based on the page-design language XHTML - which is much closer to HTML than WML 1.0. This will make it easier to develop content that can run on both PC and Wap platforms.
Wap 2.0 supports colour graphics, multimedia messaging and downloading of large files, and includes improved navigation features, menus and pictograms and improved data synchronisation.
'Push' applications, such as email notification, sales offers and location specific marketing, are made simpler.
Security has been beefed up, with end-to-end security and integration with wired internet security to enable secure applications such as mobile commerce and mobile banking. There are also technical features aimed at business users and network administrators.
MMS Multimedia Messaging Service is tipped as the successor to Short Message Service (text messaging).
As the name suggests, it allows users to send and receive graphics, photographs, handwriting, sound and video clips as well as text. It is already beginning to form the basis of innovative services such as photo messaging.
MMS is commonly regarded as a rival or successor to Wap, perhaps because it is receiving the same kind of hype that Wap used to get. In fact, MMS is supported by Wap 2.0, and Wap has a much wider umbrella of functions than messaging, so the two technologies will co-exist.
"MMS messaging will converge with browser interaction to provide an optimised 'push-pull' experience for the user: minimal information in the message, accompanied by a 'click for more' call to action that pulls the user into a browser session," explained Brett Nulf, vice president of marketing at pervasive internet specialist Volantis.
J2ME Java 2 Mobile Edition is a version of Sun Microsystem's popular programming language that enables downloadable applications - from business applications to games and ring tones - for mobile handsets.
J2ME should ultimately provide the nearest thing to a universal platform for downloadable applications. Wap 2.0 supports J2ME.
GPRS General Packet Radio Service is the 2.5G stop-gap for data services, before third-generation broadband mobile services come online.
Unmetered and always-on, GPRS runs over existing mobile networks, promising data speeds of about 100Kbps, somewhere between a fixed-line modem and ISDN-2. This is about the ideal bandwidth for Wap services.
A POKE IN THE I-MODE
i-Mode, developed by Japan's wireless operator, NTT DoCoMo, is often portrayed as Wap's nemesis. Introduced in 1999, the year Wap began to make its mark, i-Mode delivered what Wap merely promised: a wireless web with colour, video support, an internet look and feel, and tons of content, from banking and stock broking to airline reservations and games.
It was also unmetered and always on, avoiding the connection delays and call charges that discouraged subscribers in western nations from using similar features on Wap phones.
Dutch telco KPN is now introducing i-Mode into Europe, with Holland and Germany already online, and Belgium, France and Spain under starter's orders.
So is this the beginning of the end for Wap? Actually, probably not. i-Mode's success in Japan was partly due to the scarcity of wired internet connections.
And its key differentiators - always-on, unmetered access and multimedia features - are being duplicated by Wap with the advent of Wap 2.0, MMS and GPRS network connections.
Moreover, the key difference between i-Mode and Wap - the latter relies on the WML browser while the former goes for a compact version of HTML - will become less important as both standards migrate to XHTML, a kind of super mark-up language that subsumes many earlier variants.
"The main difference between third-generation devices, i-Mode and Wap is actually in the handset features rather than in the internet software technology," said Nulf. "The three models are more like each other than they are like the PC internet experience, for example."
The most likely end to the Wap/i-Mode stand-off will be a quiet merger, by which time Wap 2.0 and i-Mode implementations may be virtually indistinguishable to the untutored eye.
Computer 2000 (0870) 060 3344
IDC (020) 8987 7100
iTouch (020) 7613 6000
Kizoom (020) 7269 9890
Macro 4 (01675) 444 800
Openwave (01442) 458 800
Telecom One (020) 7748 1000
Volantis (01483) 739 739
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